What Telescope to Buy for Children and Families?
Updated: Jan 31, 2021
When I was a child I once received a cheap telescope as a gift. Like most cheap telescopes, the views through it were terrible, and it was junked after a couple uses. As a parent myself, I understand the desire to not spend a lot of money on a telescope for a child who might drop, damage or otherwise abuse the instrument. It is probably not a good idea to give a $3,000 telescope to a 7-year-old and expect it to remain in pristine condition. At the same time, offering a telescope to a child that costs under $100 is a surefire way to smother their interest in astronomy. That might be a little harsh as there are some telescopes available in that price range today that aren’t entirely terrible, which indeed wasn’t the case ten or twenty years ago. Still, if you are looking to buy a telescope for under $100 the best advice is to spend that money on a pair of binoculars that can be used for many years, both during the day and during the night. Binoculars will show far more stars than are visible to the naked eye, often provide nice views of comets and pleasing views of the moons. While you can’t make out much detail on Jupiter with a standard pair of binoculars, you can see the four largest moons of Jupiter and note their changing positions as they orbit the gas giant.
Below are some recommendations for both children and families. For a family scope, I recommend purchasing one with a tracking mount if multiple family members or friends plan to view objects at the same time. Since objects will drift out of view quickly at higher powers without a tracking mount, it can be challenging for multiple people to view objects on a manual mount. None of these telescopes would be considered “high end” and so the optics, while good, are not going to be quite as good as those in a scope costing several thousand dollars. Even so, they will still provide solid views and keep you engaged in the night sky for years to come. Aperture is one of the most important aspects of a telescope when determining how well you will be able to view an object in the night sky, but I still strongly advise staying away from any scope larger than 8” as a first scope, and possibly those larger than 6”. While larger scopes can and do provide stunning views, they also weigh a lot more, which makes them much less likely to be used when you only have a short block of time to look at the night sky. Additionally, they are generally too big for a child to handle. This is even truer during the winter when it is cold outside. You may find yourself regretting a larger scope and the associated hassle and time to get things set up when it is well below freezing.
All of these suggestions either include mounts or suggestions for telescope mounts. Most of these links are to Amazon, which will readily take returns of anything that arrives damaged or turns out to be too large or not what you were expecting. However, at the bottom of the page, I have links to some great online telescope dealers that you can also check out.
Note: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases made through Amazon links.
Suggestions under $50
Celestron Cometron 7x50 binoculars: https://amzn.to/2CZxsTb
Again, at a low price range, the best bet is a pair of binoculars. These 7x50s from Celestron or other manufacturers will open up the night sky and are also great for nature watching.
Suggestions for $50-$150
Orion AstroDazzle: https://amzn.to/2PQNC4d
The AstroDazzle is similar to, but sort of a lower end version of the Orion Starblast, the scope at the top of this post as well as in the next section. As such, it won't be quite as sturdy and lacks a few features, but will still be a decent first scope. An excellent first upgrade would be a better eyepiece or two, and some suggestions are at the end of this blog post.
Suggestions for $150-$250
Bushnell Legend Ultra HD 10x42 binoculars: https://amzn.to/2Sd55VZ
These are really nice binoculars that I have found to be extremely sharp. They can outperform lower end 50mm binoculars even with their smaller size. The 10x magnification is great, as is a wide apparent field of view. However, it can be hard to keep the view steady at 10x while holding these by hand.
Astronomers Without Borders OneSky Reflector: https://bit.ly/2MDa1QT
This scope is probably the best bang for the buck available and will provide great views and a very reasonable cost of usually $199. It is a little less sturdy than the Starblast below, and the exposed secondary is a concern if using with small children that might want to get their fingers on it. This is a very portable scope, and since the scope has a vixen rail on it, you can take it off the included portable mount and put it on any standard telescope mount like the Skywatcher AZ-GTi: https://amzn.to/2R7kvK0 The telescope tube itself, when collapsed down is only 14" long and so is easy to travel with.
Sky and Telescope magazine did a nice review of this telescope here: https://www.skyandtelescope.com/wp-content/uploads/OneSkyReflector.pdf
Orion Starblast: https://amzn.to/2q8dmxS
The Orion Starblast is a nice and fun scope to use. It is similar to the AWB OneSky but has a slightly smaller aperture and is also a faster scope, and so will show a wider field of view. However, that makes it better for sweeping star fields and getting other low power views rather than getting high powered views of planets. The following scope does better at high power views of planets, but can't do wide views of the Milky Way. You will quickly find that no scope can do everything well, and there are always compromises.
Celestron C90: https://amzn.to/2yr89pe plus a good photo tripod. Or look at the similar Skywatcher version with tabletop mount combo below. The C90 is a great and sturdy scope that will hold alignment better than the Starblast and will take more abuse. However, it does need a reasonably sturdy photo tripod to obtain steady high power views, a tripod that is sturdier than you probably think you need. The scope itself is easy to pack in any backpack for travel which is a nice bonus.
Suggestions for $250-$500
Skywatcher Virtuoso 90mm: https://amzn.to/2NUfNgR
The Virtuoso 90 is essentially the same scope as the Celestron C90 but comes with a nice tabletop tracking mount that can also be attached to a sturdy tripod (though a lightweight photo tripod is not going to provide a good experience).
Orion SkyQuest XT4.5: https://amzn.to/2CZsPsv
This telescope will provide better all-around views than the Orion Starblast and will do much better on planets than that scope will. It is still small and easy to carry by most children but is not as portable as the Starblast.
Orion SkyQuest XT6: https://amzn.to/2Jb33S9
This scope is very similar to the previous one, but a little bigger with 6" of aperture. That is enough to begin to open up a lot of objects in the night sky to serious viewing and will do great on planets. It is less portable than the XT4.5, and being bigger and heavier, may need to be set up by an adult. Smaller children will also have a harder time viewing through the eyepiece.
Suggestions for $500-$1000
Celestron 6SE: https://amzn.to/2yuKtAc
The 6SE gives you a nice 6" aperture telescope on a mount that can provide goto and tracking functions once aligned. Add a $99 SkyPortal module: https://amzn.to/2Q0eDCb and control the telescope with your smartphone or tablet.
Orion StarSeeker IV 127mm Mak: https://amzn.to/2JdpciHn
The Orion Starseeker is similar to the Celestron 6SE, but instead of a 6" SCT telescope you get a 5" Maksutov telescope. These scopes do well on the moon and planets, but have a narrow field of view and are not as bright on deep sky objects like nebula and galaxies.
Another option is to pick up a standalone Celestron C5: https://amzn.to/2Jc1L9r or C6: https://bit.ly/2wSwGTj or a nice 80mm refractor https://amzn.to/2Q3qeR2 (if you are more interested in wide field views of the Milky Way and still want nice but slightly lower resolution planet views) plus the SkyWatcher AZ-GTi mount: https://amzn.to/2R7kvK0 . This mount can accept any telescope under about 10-12 pounds with a vixen dovetail, provides tracking and go to functions, and is controlled entirely by your phone or tablet. For a lower cost option, pick up a manual mount like the Explore Scientific Twilight 1 mount: https://amzn.to/2D10Kky
Suggestions over $1000(note that prices may be under $1,000 when on sale)
Celestron 8SE: https://amzn.to/2PLFbXD (this link is to a package that includes the SkyPortal module that allows you to control the mount with your phone) This is the same mount that comes with the 6SE but you get a 8" SCT scope for brighter and better-resolved views of deep sky objects like globular clusters. In my experience, the 8" SCT is better on planets like Saturn than a C6, but not much better on Jupiter.
The Celestron Evolution 6: https://amzn.to/2q9Xyup and Celestron Evolution 8: https://amzn.to/2RbWAt6 are the same telescope as the 6SE and 8SE (albeit in a different color), but with a more advanced mount. This mount is a little sturdier, has a module built in to allow control by phone or tablet, and also has a built-in rechargeable battery that provides about 10 hours of usage. The 6SE and 8SE require 8 AA batteries or an AC adapter. Also, this mount has dual encoders so that you can move the scope around manually and it won't lose track of where it is pointed, something you can't do with the 6 or 8SE. It does cost a lot more though, and again, the optics are the same as in the 6 and 8SE.
The 100ED is a bigger version of the 80ED linked to in the previous section. The scope is lightweight, but long, and won't do well on the AZ-GTi mount linked to in the previous section. The links above are to an equatorial mount that can be used manually or with optional tracking motors. I've also provided a link to a super sturdy, but heavy, Alt-Az mount that I have used and enjoy. While this scope is lighter than a C8, it is quite long, and so is a lot more challenging to move around. The views are great though and will do very well on planets as well as star clusters and nebula. Since it is only 4" in aperture, it won't do nearly as well as a C8 on globular star clusters or many galaxies.
Most of these telescopes only come with one or two eyepieces, and some aren't the best but can get you started. Simple plossl eyepieces provide lovely crisp views, but eye relief is limited in versions below 10mm in focal length. So, they aren't always the easiest to look through. But the basic 25mm plossl is one of my favorite eyepieces and can be inexpensive. Zoom eyepieces can also be a convenient choice, so you don't have to change eyepieces as often. Instead of buying numerous eyepieces, another good option is to buy a barlow lens which doubles the magnification of your existing eyepieces, essentially giving you a whole second set of eyepieces. To figure out what magnification an eyepiece will provide you with, divide the focal length of the telescope by the focal length of the eyepiece. So, a 500mm focal length scope and a 25mm eyepiece will give you 500/25=20x magnification.
Orion 32mm Plossl: https://amzn.to/2MUjeIG GSO 25 mm Plossl: https://amzn.to/2CM1zgc
25, 17, 10mm Plossl set: https://amzn.to/2SnfG0y Agena Dual ED 12mm: https://amzn.to/2M7BtF
9mm Expanse: https://amzn.to/2SkHi6y Agena Dual ED 8mm: https://amzn.to/2wU81Np
2x Barlow lens: https://amzn.to/2EPEvzy
Celestron 8-24mm zoom: https://amzn.to/2yCLNRU
Better, but expensive Baader 8-24mm zoom: https://amzn.to/2EQwj2h
The above are all reasonably priced eyepieces (the Baader zoom is expensive, but can replace many individual eyepieces). But, if you want the best views you can get with your telescope and have the money, Televue has some fantastic eyepieces. I prefer the Nagler line, especially for 13mm and under focal lengths: https://amzn.to/2Jk3Dgq
Most of the above links are to Amazon, and buying a scope or other item through Amazon will help support this website and my associated YouTube channel. However, be sure to check out these great vendors as well to see if you can find a better deal elsewhere. Note that many of the items bought through Amazon are coming from places like Adorama and Agena Astro if you check the seller, so buy from wherever you get the best price.
Agena Astro: http://agenaastro.com
B&H Photo: https://www.bhphotovideo.com
Highpoint Scientific: http://highpointscientific.com
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